Literary Boroughs #44: Ottawa, Canada

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the forty-fourth post on Ottawa, Canada, by Kelley Tish Baker -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

Situated at the confluence of the Ottawa, Gatineau and Rideau Rivers in eastern Ontario, Canada’s capital has undergone some major transformations in its 187-year history. In its early days as Bytown it was a backwater full of lumbermen whose weekend piss-ups invariably ended in bloody brawls. Up until the 1990s, Ottawa was the object of much derision (usually by denizens of Toronto and Montreal) as “the town that fun forgot,” where at 5 pm civil servants scurried back to the suburbs and the town rolled up its sidewalks. But lately Ottawa has come into its own, emerging as a vibrant, bilingual, multicultural, green and eminently livable city of just under a million.

What the city is known for:

For years the feds were the Ottawa’s biggest employer, but in recent decades the city’s life sciences research industry has taken off. As for its high-tech industry – Ottawa was once known as “Silicon Valley North” – it is slowly rebounding after the meltdown. One of SVN’s legacies has been to make Ottawa the most connected city in the Canada.

Until recently Ottawa was the world’s second-coldest capital, after Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. That we’ve been displaced by Kazakhstan’s Astana is immaterial: we still remain a winter sports paradise. The Rideau Canal, a UNESCO heritage site, freezes into the world’s largest skating rink at 7.8 kilometres, or 4.8 miles long. And only 15-minutes from downtown, on the Quebec side, is the huge (361-square-kilometre) Gatineau Park offering trails of all levels for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. (In summer the region around Ottawa is known for fantastic white-water.)

The Ottawa Bluesfest is the second-largest blues festival in North America; the Ultimate Frisbee league is said to be among the world’s biggest. And come May, Ottawa hosts the world’s largest tulip festival, the Canadian Tulip Festival, when three million tulips are in glorious bloom around the city, many having been donated by the Netherlands in gratitude for giving refuge to their royal family during the Second World War.

Ottawa is the hometown of a lot of people you probably didn’t know were Canadian. And if you did you likely assumed they were from Toronto. Alanis Morisette, Tom Green, Dan Aykroyd, Peter Jennings, Sandra Oh and Matthew Perry all come from here.

There is a huge trivia community in Ottawa, not surprising for a city of brainiacs. Apparently Ottawa has the highest concentration of PhDs in North America. In addition to the games put on by the thriving Ottawa Trivia League, up to 2, 500 fans compete each year in World Trivia Night, North America’s largest live non-radio trivia contest.

Resident writers (historical and contemporary):

Among the early settlers of the region were a number of writers. However it was only after 1857, when Queen Victoria chose the city to be the capital and parliamentarians and civil servants began arriving, that a substantial literary community took root. The most famous of its members was poet Archibald Lampman, “the Canadian Keats,” who is commemorated in a grand stained glass window at the main branch of the Ottawa Public Library, alongside Shakespeare, Byron and Tennyson. Lampman was one of the Confederation Poets, a group born in the decade of Canada’s Confederation (the 1860s) who were inspired by the natural world. They are the literary equivalent of Canada’s famous Group of Seven landscape painters.

It’s only fitting that one of the city’s literary forebears was a poet, as Ottawa has been called “the poetry capital of Canada.” For a city of its size it boasts an impressive number and variety of poets, readings and publications. Especially strong are the spoken-word and slam poetry communities.

The city is also home to a number of internationally recognized fiction writers, notably Elizabeth Hay (Late Nights on Air) and Frances Itani (Deafening.)

Scottish writer John Buchan, who wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was later adapted into a film by Hitchcock, became a resident of Ottawa when he was appointed Governor General (the Queen’s official representative.) He later created the Governor General’s Literary Awards, which have become one of the country’s most prestigious prizes.

An incomplete list of some other writers with Ottawa connections — meaning they currently live here, used to live here (*), or used to live here and are now deceased (#):

* Margaret Atwood (her father was an entomologist with the federal government), # Elizabeth Smart (author of the 1945 classic By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept; her family had a summer home near Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s place in the Gatineau Hills), Roy MacGregor (Canadians: A Portrait of A Country and Its People), John Metcalf, Dayv James-French, internationally-renowned fantasy writer Charles de Lint, # Norman Levine, Rick Taylor (House Inside the Waves), Charlotte Grey (one of the country’s best historians), Elisabeth Harvor (All Times Have Been Modern), YA writer Tim Wynne-Jones, Mark Frutkin, Denise Chong (The Girl in the Picture), Phil Jenkins (non-fiction, including River Song), poet David O’Meara (recently a jury member for the prestigious national Griffin Poetry Prize), Mark Frutkin, Mary Borsky, Nadine McInnis, * Stephanie Bolster, writer of highly-acclaimed thrillers Rick Mofina, Alan Cumyn, *Anita Lahey, Brian Doyle, *John Ralston Saul  (husband of former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, author of The Unconscious Civilization, current President of PEN International, and editor of Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series), Armand Garnet Ruffo (First Nations biographer of Grey Owl), Tom Henighan, *André Alexis, Seymour Mayne, Cyril Dabydeen, rob mclennan, Roy MacSkimming, Henry Biessel, Dorothy Speak, Monty Reid, Blaine Marchand, First Nations writer and publisher Katerie Akiwenzie-Damm, Christopher Levenson, Daniel Poliquin, Moira Farr, Amanda Earl, slam poet Oni the Haitian Sensation, jwcurry (called “the best concrete and visual poet in Canada”), Pearl Pirie, Christine McNair, Max Middle, *John Barton, Terry Fallis, Heather Menzies, Clive Doucet (popular former city councilor who writes nonfiction and poetry), Albert Dumont, #John Newlove, and * Priscila Uppal.

Literary references

The first recorded mention of the Ottawa area is in the journal of French explorer Samuel de Champlain, from his 1613 exploration of the Ottawa River.

Not surprisingly, the high-powered and frequently absurd goings-on of Official Ottawa — complete with a cast of politicians, functionaries and lobbyists — have since provided many writers with rich material. Asylum, by André Alexis, skewers the 1980s reign of then-prime minister, Brian Murloney. Terry Fallis parlayed his insider knowledge as a prominent PR consultant in his humourous novel Best Laid Plans, and Linda Svendsen’s recent satirical novel Sussex Drive (the street name of the prime minister’s official residence), is a thinly-veiled portrait of current Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, and his controversial 2008 decision to prorogue Parliament.

Other writers have found inspiration in the city’s many historic landmarks. An Acre of Time is Phil Jenkins’ inventive chronology of a storied piece of land in downtown Le Breton Flats. It was later adapted into a successful play of the same name by Toronto writer Jason Sherman. J. Fitzgerald McCurdy’s YA trilogy, The Serpent’s Edge, is about a portal to another world underneath the Library of Parliament.

Still other writers have portrayed Ottawa simply as a place where people live out the normal and not-so-normal human dramas. Garbo Laughs, by Elizabeth Hay, is set in Old Ottawa South, where Hay herself lives, during the destructive ice storm of 1998. (There is a plaque sponsored by Project Bookmark Canada to mark a place near Bronson Avenue where some of the story takes place.)  Peril at the World’s Biggest Hockey Tournament, part of Roy MacGregor’s YA Screech Owl series, takes place at the annual Bell Capital Cup, which attracts over 500 teams of young players from around the world.  Much of Brian Doyle’s writing for young adults, including his best-known work Angel Square, is based on his experiences growing up in Lowertown in the 1930s and ‘40s.  Similarly, Donnie Laflamme’s series The Mechanicsville Monologues draws from his formative years in the once-working class neighbourhood. In Some Great Thing, by Colin McAdam, the backroom dealings of suburban developers in the Hunt Club area propel the plot. And Clive Doucet’s book of poetry, Canal Seasons, is a celebration of the Rideau Canal and the people who are closely tied to it.

Works set on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, but still in the National Capital region, include Frances Itani’s short story collection Leaning, Leaning Over Water, and Mark Frutkin’s Erratic North, an account of his time living as a Vietnam draft resister on a commune in the Quebec bush.

Here’s some nifty Ottawa literary trivia: it’s said that when Oscar Wilde visited the city in 1882, the portrait Frances Richards painted of him inspired Wilde to write The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Lastly, and completely incongruously, Ottawa has been immortalized in the universe of Archie comics in a special edition, following a local boy’s contest win.

Where to learn:

Strangely enough for a city of its size and stature, Ottawa does not have a single university-based creative writing program. However, Rick Taylor has been offering courses through Carleton University’s English Department for years — that is, when he’s not off researching his upcoming book Swimming and Desire by joining writers around the world in a dip. If you take one of Rick’s annual week-long summer workshops Write by the Lake in nearby Val-des-Monts, Quebec, you’ll be able to see his swimming prowess for yourself.

Rick has also taught for years at the recently defunct and much-missed Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeebar, as have a number of other local writers, including rob mclennan, who has moved his poetry classes to the nearby Carleton Tavern.

The University of Ottawa’s Centre for Continuing Education offers courses in writing poetry and short fiction given by Cyril Dabydeen, whose latest novel, Drums of My Flesh, was nominated for the prestigious IMPAC/Dublin Literary Prize.

Algonquin College offers a unique-in-Canada, multi-genre Graduate Certificate in Scriptwriting, which includes a two-day trip to Toronto to pitch to major broadcasters.

Some of the reading series and writers’ groups offer occasional workshops, including the Tree Reading Series, in poetry, and the Ottawa Storytellers, in storytelling.

Where to find reading material:

Sadly, the last few years have seen the death of several of Ottawa’s independent bookstores. Still holding down the fort are Perfect Books downtown on Elgin Street, Books on Beechwood in the lovely heritage neighbourhood of New Edinburgh, Kaleidoscope Kids’ Books in the Glebe, and Singing Pebble Books in Old Ottawa South (steps away from the fantastic Green Door vegetarian restaurant.)

The go-to store for Ottawa’s politically engaged readers is Octopus Books. They offer a superb selection of works on the environment, international politics, indigenous studies, labour and the like, as well as fiction and books for kids. Octopus also hosts regular events, such as the upcoming launch of the latest edition of the Socialist Register.

In terms of used books, All Books on Rideau Street may be cramped, but it is full of good finds, especially in philosophy. A few blocks away, in the historic Byward Market, Argosy Books sells rare, used, and out-of-print volumes. Near the University of Ottawa, Benjamin Books also offers fare for serious reading, as does Patrick McGahern Books in the Market. Book Bazaar in Centretown has an impressive selection over two floors. Dragan Tail Bookshop, specializing in philosophy, religion and spirituality, is a hidden gem in the Glebe, as is Book Den in Centretown. Ottawa book lovers in the know also go to the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store on Wellington Street to scoop up the latest best-sellers — often in hardcopy — that the well-heeled residents of Westboro have cast aside.

The best magazine stores in town are the venerable Mags & Fags on Elgin Street (‘fags’ being slang for cigarettes), the Maison de la Presse Internationale on Bank Street, just steps away from Parliament Hill, and the two Britton’s — one in Westboro and the other in the Glebe. The latter has six shelves devoted to local crime writers, and hosts weekly book signings, often by local authors.

Founded in 1906 with a donation from the Carnegie Foundation, the Ottawa Public Library is North America’s largest bilingual (French/English) library system, with thirty-three branches throughout the city and its outlying areas. Reflecting Ottawa’s cultural and linguistic diversity, it has holdings in no fewer than thirteen languages.

You don’t need to be a student to take advantage of the libraries at The University of Ottawa and Carleton University, as they both offer a special community membership card. The U of O’s special collections include The Canadian Women’s Movement Archives, which focuses on contemporary grassroots feminist groups and individuals. Carleton’s holdings include The Special Collection of Modern Poetry, consisting of poetry written chiefly in English since 1940 and published by small and private presses.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is the official repository for the nation’s written, audio and visual history. However, its recent highly controversial “modernization” program has rendered it less physically accessible (you need to be a registered researcher) and less comprehensive. Nonetheless, it has some fascinating material available online. Project Naming, for example, is a multilingual (English, French and Inuktitut) collaborative effort between LAC and various Inuit groups to identify the Inuit portrayed in some of LAC’s photos.

Not surprisingly, Library and Archives boasts a vast collection of Canadian literature. This includes translations, manuscripts, audio and video recordings, and journals and notebooks. Care to hear Leonard Cohen reading his work? Check him out on The Canadian Poetry Audio Archives.

Where to get published:

Although there are no major trade book publishers in town, Ottawa is home to a number of notable smaller publishers.

Penumbra Press specializes in books on Canadian art, First Nations and the North. Buschek Books focuses mainly on poetry, including translations. More than a decade before Tomas Tranströmer won the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature, Buschek published a bilingual (Swedish/English) edition of For the Living and the Dead, translated by Don Coles, the Governor-General’s-Award-winning poet. Oberon Press is a long-established literary publisher of Canadian work. It has become known as Canada’s leading publisher of short stories, having founded two influential anthologies — Best Canadian Stories and Coming Attractions. It has launched the careers of some of Canada’s best-known writers, namely David Adams Richards, Wayne Johnston, W.P. Kinsella and Rohinton Mistry. Several of its books have been turned into films, such as Field of Dreams, Dance Me Outside and Margaret’s Museum. Another stalwart of the Ottawa publishing scene, Borealis Press, publishes in a wide range of genres, including fiction (such as early work by Carol Shields), drama, poetry, criticism and history.

Co-founded by rob mclennan, Ottawa’s indefatigable literary Renaissance man (who apparently has decided to eschew sleep in favour of writing, editing, reviewing, publishing, blogging, teaching and event-organizing), Chaudiere Books publishes Canadian fiction and poetry, with preference given to local writers. mclennan is also the force behind above/ground press, which claims to be “the most active poetry chapbook publisher in Canada.”

Affiliated with Carleton University’s lively English Department, In/Words magazine publishes poetry, fiction and non-fiction as well as chapbooks.

Room 3o2 Books specializes in concrete/visual/sound poetry (primarily Canadian), and has a stock of over 20,000 mainly rare titles. It is run by reclusive poet jwcurry.

Apt. 9 Press puts out handmade chapbooks in limited editions.

Though you’re unlikely to have your work accepted here, The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons is a fascinating periodical worth knowing about. It bills itself as “a prisoner written, academically oriented, peer reviewed, non-profit journal, based on the tradition of the penal press.” It’s published by University of Ottawa Press, which is the only fully bilingual university press in North America.

Moving over to periodicals, the beautifully designed Arc Poetry Magazine, “Canada’s Poetry Magazine,” has an undisputed place in the nation’s active poetry scene, having published contemporary poems, reviews, articles and interviews since 1978.

As for online publishing, Bywords (a play on Ottawa’s original name of Bytown) appears monthly. It’s the essential site for learning what’s happening in the city’s literary life. Along with its Calendar of Literary Events, it also publishes poetry in the Bywords Quarterly Journal, and puts out chapbooks.

Founded in 2005 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Bytown becoming Ottawa, Ottawater is a poetry annual.

Where to write:

There’s no need to give your business to the big coffee chains (note to American readers: not all Canadians love Tim Hortons!) Ottawa is blessed with many great independent coffee shops. Bridgehead is a local success story, with over a dozen cafés in the city. The one on Sparks Street, just steps from Parliament Hill, is great for gathering material (a.k.a. “eavesdropping”) as journalists and politicos who work nearby often come in to gossip over a mug of fair-trade coffee or a bowl of homemade soup.

Planet Coffee is located in a picturesque cobblestone courtyard in the Byward Market. The colourful students from the nearby Ottawa School of the Art make for great people-watching.

In the last few years a number of coffee shops have sprung up in Chinatown, on Somerset Street. Raw Sugar with its retro furnishings and tableware, is one of the funkier. It hosts occasional readings, along with off-beat events like sock puppet-making workshops. Nearby is The Daily Grind, also an artist-friendly, laid-back place.

For more of a meal, or for a great selection of draft beers, head to one of the most beloved pubs of the Ottawa arts crowd, The Manx. It’s where David O’Meara, one of Ottawa’s — if not the country’s — best young poets, tends bar, and where he co-hosts the Plan 99 Reading Series. Distinct from other reading series around town, Plan 99 features only out-of-town authors. Over the past decade the series has brought the likes of Montreal poet Carmine Starnino and St. John’s, Newfoundland fiction writer Lisa Moore to the Manx Pub.

Every writer knows you don’t do all your writing at the keyboard. Sometimes you need to get outside to let your ideas percolate. And Ottawa has no shortage of great green spaces Most of them are accessible via the city’s extensive network of scenic bike paths that can take you along the canal, the Ottawa River, and even over onto the Quebec side.

Inspired by New York’s Bryant Park, last summer’s Capital Reading Garden provided comfortable space along the Rideau Canal, along with reading materials and wi-fi. It was a well-received pilot project that, with any luck, will be renewed for this year.

If you’re up for something more vigorous, head to the hilly forests of Gatineau Park to hike, bike, paddle or swim. To make the most of that post-workout neuron high, snag yourself an Adirondack chair in the lovely garden of Les Saisons in nearby Chelsea to work. Or simply enjoy some coffee and nibbles and the sight of impossibly buff triathletes relaxing beside you.

Finally, you can also take a walk along the Poets Pathway, a continuous 30-kilometre route through some of the city’s green spaces. It’s anchored at Beechwood Cemetery, final resting place of many of the country’s literary luminaries, including Lampman and contemporary poet John Newlove.

Festivals, Events and Reading Series:

You would think that as the capital of an officially bilingual country, Ottawa’s French and English-language literary communities would be fairly integrated. Sadly, ce n’est pas le cas. In this instance “the Two Solitudes” remain apart. You’d also think that as the nation’s capital, Ottawa would be a shoe-in for generous arts funding. Wrong again. It seems the feds think Ottawa writers will be sufficiently inspired by the world-class museums and galleries in town the government does fund, that their families will be fed along with their souls.

But Ottawa writers have turned this financial lack to their advantage, and have adopted a cooperative DIY ethic unseen in most cities, as evidenced in VERSeFest, an annual poetry festival run by the fourteen (!) different reading series in town. Here you can hear pretty much every type of poetic variation going — free verse, quatrains, spoken word, rap, and haiku among them. Last year’s edition featured Gregory Scofield, Roo Borson, Pearl Pirie and Afua Cooper.

The biggest literary event in town is the Ottawa International Writers Festival — “the country’s largest independent literary celebration.” In addition to its spring and fall editions, it hosts special events throughout the year. The festival features international, national and local writers in readings and workshops. Past authors include Richard Ford, Annabel Lyon, Ian Rankin, Amitav Ghosh, Robert Pinsky, Irshad Manji, Charlotte Grey and Vincent Lam. This past spring the festival launched a first in the world of literary festivals, the journal Foment, which features long-form reviews of the books featured in the festival.

The Ottawa International Storytelling Festival is put on by the Ottawa Storytellers in the fall. This year their headliner was Michael Kusugak, an Inuit author who told traditional tales from the Arctic. The Storytellers also host a monthly story swap/open stage. Coming up in February, for Black History Month, is Beyond the Railroad – Black History in Canada, celebrating the forgotten or neglected stories of black Canadians.

Every summer the Westboro and Hintonburg communities host a free festival called Westfest, which includes an impressive spoken word component.  

Since 1972, The Canadian Literature Symposium has brought together thousands of Canadian and international scholars every spring to explore topics in Canadian literature. Each year focuses on a different author. This year participants will be discussing Irving Layton, who was an accomplished poet in his own right, in addition to being Leonard Cohen’s literary mentor.

The venerable Tree Reading Series, the third-longest in the country, showcases poetry. The Dusty Owl Reading Series, recently relocated to Mugshots, a bar in a hostel that used to be a jail, promotes cross-pollination of artistic forms. Carleton University’s In/Words magazine has a monthly reading series. And Voices of Venus is where local women come together once a month to showcase their literary and spoken word creations.

Every month hundreds of people in Ottawa come out for poetry slams. The Capital Poetry Collective is the umbrella organization for a number of spoken word and slam poetry performances. It hosts an event every Saturday.

The AB Reading Series is Ottawa’s reading series for sound, performance and experimental poetry.

Ottawa native and current resident Kelley Tish Baker is a Creative Writing student in the University of British Columbia’s Optional-Residency MFA program. Her short play, Just Desserts, was recently produced for theatre festivals in Ottawa, India, New Zealand and Australia. Though she’s lived in Toronto and Montreal, she likes Ottawa best and is on a mission to convince the world that the city has much more to offer than just civil servants and snow. (Photograph courtesy the author.)

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